By David Gilchrist
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Making Workers: Radical Geographies of Education

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Issue 436

Geographer Danny Dorling quotes that in an 1879 testimony to a select committee of the British parliament one petitioner said, “Geography, sir, is ruinous in its effects on the lower classes. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are comparatively safe, but geography invariably leads to revolution.”

Katharyne Mitchell is able to use the geographer’s skill at looking at the changes in the system, both over time and spatially, and is able to draw the links between ideology, causes, and effects.

As capitalist logic is pressed on our society more and more, its impact on the education system increases. In her book Making Workers, Mitchell argues that education plays a critical role in the social and political formation of young people.

She argues that education is undergoing a shift toward individual choice which, if it continues, will lead to its increased penetration by the private sector. Through an analysis of the effects of neoliberalism on education in the United States, the UK and Canada, Mitchell gives us a serious look at the problem but also the possibilities for resistance.

Mitchell asks, how do children become workers? Drawing on the work of social scientist Paul Willis she lists a number of structural factors but also points out that education and the choices people make play a big role.

This includes how children react to the prevailing classroom situation. Here the culture of the children is important, derived as it is from the presence or absence of wider class cultures of solidarity and resistance.

It is undoubtedly true that both the structural factors and the culture have changed hugely in recent years. Mitchell contends that new types of employment technology and ways of working have changed this process of creating workers and that spatial changes in the location of jobs have a big effect too. The culture of accepting that there may no longer be a job for life for instance or that certain transferable skills are needed in the “knowledge economy” is prevalent today.

The ability to move on both figuratively and literally is valorised but of course, as Mitchell points out, this is not always possible for the poorer worker. This leads to new understandings of self and new cultural narratives and ways of being in the world both for those attempting to follow the new dictates and those who are unable to.

Mitchell shows how much of the social reproduction of new labour forces is done socially in schools and colleges.

In a chapter rather chillingly called “Creating the Entrepreneurial Child” Mitchell’s argument is that neoliberalism is not only an economic concept but that it has an ideological sphere as well. In this way, the education system is being changed.

We recognise this in many ways: the breakup of national systems of education, in England and Wales characterised by the imposition of the academy system is one symptom.

Mitchell posits, however, that this goes deeper and that the ideas of neoliberalism are penetrating the system such that they affect students thinking about what education is and what it is for.

Mitchell also looks at how the memory of past resistance can be part of building new cultures of resistance and at how people across the globe are fighting back today.

This is an excellent book and should be read by any teacher or parent interested in rescuing our educational system from the hands of the neoliberal agenda.

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